Vance Bryce learned early in his tenure as Graham County Chamber of Commerce executive director that Marge Schade was not someone to be overlooked.
This was back in 2019, he said, just as he was getting started in the job. The GFWC Woman’s Club of Safford was holding a mixer that the chamber was supposed to attend and promote to its membership. Bryce said the chamber, which was in transition at the time, failed to show, and Marge was none too pleased about it.
The revered community business leader and philanthropist, who was about 95 at the time, gave the still-green chamber executive a piece of her mind. For his part, Bryce said the encounter was a valuable one because it “set the tone” for how he should go about his job.
Several words crop up when Bryce and other folks around the Gila Valley describe Schade, who passed away April 20 at the age of 99, and none of those words imply meekness. Instead, they’re terms like “rock,” “pillar,” “a force” and “trail blazer.”
Up to until her death, Schade remained active as CEO of Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Safford, the company whose roots trace back to the soft drink business she started with her husband, Karl, in Clifton in 1952. By all accounts, her mental acuity remained intact to her very last day.
Most of Marge Schade’s accomplishments have been previously recorded both in this newspaper and elsewhere. At one point, for instance, she was one of only seven women in the United States to own a bottling plant, and she told the Courier in a 2022 interview that she remembered once being on the cover of Pepsi-Cola World magazine with 40 men.
Born July 4, 1923, Schade — then Margaret Eva Butler — spent her early years in Texas before winding up in Clifton, where she graduated high school at 15 and married her high school sweetheart, Karl, at 18.
Karl Schade’s family owned the Coca-Cola distributorship in Clifton, but the young couple decided they wanted to strike out on their own, Marge recalled in the 2022 interview. She said they started the Home Beverage Co. in 1952 after purchasing equipment from what was once the Manila Soda Works on Chase Creek Street in Clifton. They then obtained a Pepsi-Cola franchise, and over the years, the franchise has grown to cover Graham, Greenlee, Gila and Cochise counties.
In the years since the company relocated to Safford, Schade’s reputation continued to grow as a community leader and philanthropist. In addition to serving six years on the Safford City Council, she was a founding member of the Gila Valley Arts Council and a charter member of the Mount Graham Regional Medical Center Auxiliary. The list goes on to include ongoing support for the Safford City-Graham County Library, The Boys and Girls Club, Our Neighbors Pantry and Farm, Graham County Substance Coalition, SEACUS, the House of Hope and more.
“Marge was the anchor of GFWC Woman's Club of Safford … our rock,” club member Deanna Moeller said in an email. “She was a member since 1946 (77 years), and during that time we have been the recipient of her time and treasure, always with very little fanfare. She believed that the Woman’s Club is a worthwhile organization that keeps culture and the nice things of life going, and she encouraged young women who have an interest in the community to join this club and keep the legacy growing. … We will miss her positive presence very much. “
“I didn't know Marge well, but she supported just about every non-profit in Graham County and the Safford United Methodist Church was a huge benefactor or her generosity,” said Gila Valley Arts Council President Tom Green. “If anyone were to ever ask me who the most generous person I've ever know in Graham County in my lifetime, hands down, Marge is that person.”
Debra Jubran, who also attends First United Methodist Church in Safford, said she had many fond memories of Schade.
“She opened her home and heart for the youth group on many, many occasions,” she said “I remember going to her home where she had so much for us young people to do. She many times joined us. One time she even talked her son to take us on mountains to play in snow.”
Thatcher-based surveyor Ray Thiessen recalled a time in 2018 when he and his wife, Teri, had the opportunity to do a kindness for Schade.
“We learned one of Marge’s bucket list items was to go back to Texas of her early school years (1930s),” Thiessen recalled in an email. “As we were going past the area, we invited her along.”
Thiessen said they first located Marge’s country grade school in Bakersfield, Texas. From there, they traveled to McCamey, where her father did business in the oil industry. A local museum had a 1933 phone book with her father’s number and an ad for her aunt’s beauty parlor. The traveling companions continued on to Austin, where Marge had the chance to visit her grandson while the Thiessens spent time with their daughter. The return trip to Arizona included a stop in Fredericksburg, Texas, “for more memories.”
“God has given me the resources and the ability to do some things, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it,” Schade recalled in 2022. “It’s nice, but I didn’t do anything to be recognized for. I just felt that at the time there were things I could do. Things just came along at different times.”
“She will be so missed by so many,” Jubran observed. “Such a great and God-hearted soul.”